In addition to improving quality of life for individual game developers, it is important to acknowledge that talent must be sourced from the whole world in order to stay competitive with other regional centers of video game development. With this in mind, several Japanese companies have made a concerted effort to become more friendly to foreign workers and integrate them onto local teams.
These kinds of workers are not always easy to find and recruit, however: the number of non-Japanese who can speak the language well enough to integrate into Japanese society and are willing to live there is already limited. Compounded by the level of technical expertise required to develop games professionally, the pool of potential talent grows exceedingly small.
Additionally, simply having non-Japanese people on the development team does not by itself solve any particular problem. Western workers laboring under a Japanese system often run into problems with corporate culture, and even if they do not, they can only really become as helpful as the Japanese workers themselves unless they are given some kind of special status, which is inadvisable.
As I mentioned earlier, I believe it is the basic structure of the team, and not any specific ratio of foreigners to Japanese on that team, that counts most.
Another strategy to take advantage of international development resources is partnering with Western studios to create new titles with traditionally Japanese properties. These collaborations are increasing in frequency, with arrangements such as US-based Double Helix Games creating Front Mission Evolved for Square Enix and UK-based developer Ninja Theory recently signing a deal to create DmC, an entry in Capcom's Devil May Cry series.
At their best, these productions can provide an interesting and refreshing new take on a long-running franchise, bringing new ideas to the table and inaugurating potential new series offshoots.
At worst, though, they can create products that do not connect with audiences in either country. Again looking to the film industry, we can see that many American-created movies based on typically Japanese properties (such as Godzilla, Dragon Ball Evolution or Speed Racer) have faced trouble connecting with mainstream audiences in both the U.S. and Japan -- even as they alienated the property's most dedicated fans.
In the announcements for such productions, often times a series original creator or director can be found saying something to the effect of, "I will work to ensure the spirit of the property is kept intact." I believe that while this is a noble goal, the spirit of a project must necessarily change when a different team takes the reins. This is because even though a certain amount of a game's spirit does come from the director, an equally important part of the spirit also comes from the team itself. And if the visions and ideas of the director and the team are not totally matched together, the final result will be confused.
Front Mission Evolved
Take Front Mission Evolved as an example. In this project, the combination of Japanese and American ideas regarding storytelling, game design and art resulted in a vague blend that does not attempt to realize any one particular strong idea. As major enthusiast site GameSpot put it in its review, the end product of this collaboration was "a very beige third-person shooter that doesn't do anything particularly well."
With a game like this, the effect on the consumer is akin to the one left by a movie-license game: not exactly bad, but nothing superlative in any respect, either. These types of games are carried by the strength of their license. Unfortunately, in the case of Front Mission Evolved, the "license" alone was not powerful enough to bring success.
It may be a better idea in situations like this to acknowledge discrepancies from the start rather than for each side to try to impose abstract, difficult-to-explain concepts on the other. By creating a product where numerous compromises are made by both sides, a watered-down game is often created.
I believe that audiences respond better to clear messages of intent, no matter what their point of origin. In other words, if a Western team is contracted to create a new game, ideally the contracting party would be willing to trust them all the way on all aspects of development. If this is not possible, it might be best not to contract the product development at all.
So what is the path forward? Video games are a rapidly developing and shifting medium; a set formula that worked yesterday probably won't work today, and today's formula may not work tomorrow. Additionally, the tremendous amount of tacit knowledge at work in the process of making a video game makes it difficult to simply transplant a development processes wholesale into a different culture. Finally, the companies of Japan are quite different from each other in terms of their internal culture, their circumstances, and their goals.
In light of all this, there is simply no way I could state that a certain specific technique or way of thinking is the single key to improving the state of game development in Japan. Instead, what I have tried to do here is to help frame and further the discussion over Japan's game industry and provide some ideas for careful consideration. I hope they prove useful as the industry continues to shift and transform. With these thoughts in mind and some luck, perhaps we can witness a new generation of titles from Japan that surprise and entertain the world.
Special thanks to Yuriko Shimizu, Masaru Agarida, Jake Kazdal, and Ryan Payton for their input.